Glitch puts vote count in slow lane (SC)
The Post and Courier. November 6, 2008. By Schuyler Kropf, Glenn Smith
Charleston County officials on Wednesday blamed a computer glitch and a flood of absentee ballots for election night gridlock that left voters still waiting for results a full day after the polls closed.
County voters endured a steady drizzle and waits of up to five hours to cast ballots Tuesday, only to be left hanging like a chad at the end of the day over who won or lost a host of contested offices.
Stymied for hours in their effort to count votes, Charleston County election commission members finally packed up and went home early Wednesday morning.
They slept while confused voters and anxious candidates waited. And waited. And waited, while Charleston lagged behind every other county in the state. By mid-day Wednesday, less than a third of the vote had been reported in many races.
Election commission Chairman Dan Martin blamed the problems on a computer malfunction that prevented the county from transmitting and sharing its election numbers with the state and others.
Precinct-by-precinct results could be had from paper tally sheets, but anyone interested in seeing them had to stop by the election warehouse and do the math themselves.
Martin said he understood the public's frustration and accepted the blame for the miscue. But once the problem was identified, it was important to proceed cautiously to protect the process, he said.
"I would rather be slow but accurate, than to be fast and make mistakes," he said.
Problems were evident early Tuesday evening. Some polling stations still had long lines when the doors closed at 7 p.m., and workers couldn't tally results until everyone had voted. Several confused voters also showed up at election headquarters to cast their ballots after being shuffled between multiple polling stations that turned them away.
The electronic board that flashes electronic results sat dark about an hour after the polls closed. Two hours in, a smattering of results appeared, but some races still had just one precinct showing. No one could tell who was winning or by what margins. People grew anxious; the scene chaotic.
Charleston County vote count resumes this afternoon, published 11/05/08
In addition to computer problems, some of the delay was attributed to wet, partially destroyed or incorrectly marked paper ballots, some of which jammed in the election scanner. Once damaged, those results had to be recreated on a clean voting sheet — another time-consuming process.
Officials thought the problem could be solved by midnight Tuesday, but that benchmark came and went with little change. Commission members finally went home to sleep, leaving a deputy director to man the warehouse during their absence.
"We were exhausted," Martin said. "Unfortunately, my body was shutting down."
Chris Whitmire, public information officer for the South Carolina State Election Commission, said Charleston was the only county that experienced computer woes that prevented results from being posted. Despite the delay, he said, the important thing for voters to remember is that every vote will eventually be counted. "The system will ultimately work," he said.
Whitmire took little issue with the county commission's decision to call it a night. "The longer you go, fatigue sets and there is a potential for more errors," he said.
It had certainly been a long day for election workers, with a number of problems reported at polling places in Charleston County. Among other things, voters complained that:
Incorrect precinct locations on voter registration cards caused more than 70 people to wait in line at West Ashley Middle School when they were supposed to vote a mile away at the Jewish Community Center. Word of the miscue spread, creating more confusion that led to other voters showing up at wrong polling places.
Machine malfunctions compounded delays at several polling places, including Joseph Floyd Manor in Charleston, where waits approached five hours at times.
A few dozen College of Charleston students were improperly turned away from downtown polling stations when they presented their student ID cards for identification. The issue was later resolved in the students' favor.
Unnecessary delays were caused at some polling places by combining several precincts into one long line, only to separate the line at the end. As a result, some people waited in lines that stretched around buildings, not knowing there was a short line for their individual precinct inside.
Charleston County led the state in reported voter problems Tuesday, with 131 complaints logged by the South Carolina Protection Hotline, run by the nonpartisan National Election Protection Coalition, said Brett Bursey, the group's state field manager.
Still, Martin is convinced the county can run a solid, accurate election. It just caught a bad break Tuesday. "We were prepared, but things happened," Martin said. "Unfortunately, it happened during a very large election."
Ron Menchaca and David Slade contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or email@example.com.